U.S. immigration reform affects the entire global supply chain, and PMA works to educate members about the issue and potential solutions, focusing on the agriculture issues around immigration reform. At present, the path forward on immigration reform remains unclear, largely a consequence of 2016 U.S. presidential elections and the issue’s complexity.
Immigration reform in the United States requires congressional action. Though various administrative agencies can act on discrete issues within their authority, there is no individual or collective agency action that can fix this broken system. Only Congress can. Wrapped up in this overarching issue are sub-issues such as border protection, agricultural labor, hospitality industry labor, children of immigrants, and much more.
The U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s approach of passing individual bills addressing specific issues is a strategy that has been used in other committees to address complex, controversial topics such as environmental regulatory reforms. Piecemeal reform also serves the political strategy of garnering votes that would otherwise be lost on a widespread, comprehensive reform package.
There are several issues surrounding immigration reform, however, that make this approach unlikely to succeed in the U.S. Senate — particularly now when 2016 elections are already influencing what issues the Senate takes up and when. The closer we get to November 2016, the less likely members are willing to take difficult votes on anything. Add to the mix that there are several Republican presidential contenders in the Senate who have taken different stances on immigration reform, and one has a recipe for inaction.
Recognizing immigration reform is a critical issue for members, PMA has joined with others in the Agricultural Coalition on Immigration Reform and the Agriculture Workforce Coalition to seek ag-specific reforms and keep the issue in front of Congress despite the hurdles. Here we outline notable activity on immigration that has taken place since the beginning of 2015 and the swearing in of the 114th Congress.
• Executive action. Earlier this year, Congress attempted to use the funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to overturn President Obama’s executive actions taken in November 2014 to expand immigrant employment authorization and the deferred action for childhood arrivals as well as make changes to removal procedures. Had the congressional effort been successful, it may have provided the “re-set” of this issue to allow Congress to move some type of legislation — either issue-specific bills or a comprehensive bill — during 2015. There were insufficient votes in the Senate, however, to overcome a Democratic filibuster of the bill passed by the House of Representatives. In the end, funding for DHS through September 2015 was passed without provisions affecting the executive order.
In February, a U.S. District Court judge issued a ruling stopping the president’s order from taking effect. The Justice Department has appealed and it is likely this matter will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee has approved legislation defunding President Obama’s executive actions on immigration and granting states and localities the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
• Legal Workforce Act. On March 3, the House Judiciary Committee approved by a vote of 20-13 the Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1147). This bill would mandate the use of the E-Verify system by employers to confirm the legal status of prospective employees. Advocates for agricultural organizations have been told there is no opportunity to move any legislation that addresses agriculture’s workforce situation until after border security and enforcement legislation passes.
Agricultural employers concur with the need to strengthen worker documentation; however, taking these steps before addressing the current workforce and creating a new guest-worker program to address future needs will leave employers in an untenable position. The American Farm Bureau estimates food production would fall by $30 billion to $60 billion in the United States if the government implements a strict enforcement-only employment verification system without the other pieces of this complex puzzle. Farm Bureau also estimates that consumer prices could rise 5 to 6 percent under this scenario.
• Shifts in Senate makeup. Historically, comprehensive immigration reform has had more potential with Democrat support. When the Senate passed its comprehensive immigration reform bill in June 2013, the final vote was 68-32. The makeup of the Senate was 52 Democrats, 46 Republicans and two Independents (who caucus with the Democrats). Since then, nine Democrats who supported the bill have retired or were defeated in the 2014 election and have been replaced by Republicans; only two Republicans who opposed the bill have left the Senate and each was replaced by another Republican. In 2016, Republicans will be defending 24 of the 34 seats up for reelection. This is similar to the 2014 election when Democrats were defending 21 seats against the Republicans’ 15 seats.
Although control of the House is not as likely to shift, party leaders on both sides will be watching to preserve their majority and/or benefit their presidential candidate. Each party will use the upcoming months to gauge public opinion and determine what — if any — action on immigration is likely to benefit them at the polls.